In 2016 Moorestown High School senior Sam Scheibe was looking forward to attending Westminster Choir College at Rider University, where he planned to study music composition and theory. But not long after being accepted, he got the news that the campus he had visited, located on Walnut Lane in Princeton, might be closed down and his classes moved to the main campus of Rider in Lawrence.
Scheibe was outraged and joined hundreds of fellow students in signing a petition that called for Westminster to remain on the campus it has used since 1932, in buildings full of classrooms and performance spaces specially designed for music instruction.
Rider ultimately decided not to move the school, but soon announced another major change: that Westminster was being put on the market to be sold, and if it didn’t sell, would be shut down. Rider is in negotiations with a buyer, which the school has declined to name, referring to it only as a for-profit Asian company that runs K-12 schools. This time Scheibe didn’t protest, despite the possibility that his school would not stay open long enough to give him a diploma.
“Everyone went in knowing the risk they were taking,” he says. Scheibe says he is worried that student protests might scare off a potential buyer.
Other students considering the choir college made a different choice. Jeffrey Halpern, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Rider, and the faculty union’s chief negotiator, says enrollment at Westminster is down 20 percent from the year before. He also says loyal donors have stopped supporting the school.
Joseph Beck, a 1959 graduate of Westminster, is a longtime donor and a litigant in one of several lawsuits against Rider. Beck, a Missouri resident, says he has given more than $100,000 to the school over the years, supporting scholarships as well as the construction of new facilities. He says he recently withdrew an offer to help fund the renovation of a student center.
“We think Rider doesn’t have the right to sell Westminster,” he says. “It’s an ill-advised thing.”
Beck, who as a student earned extra money by working in the garden of Westminster co-founder John Finley Williamson, says donors will also want their money back if Westminster is sold to a for-profit entity. “We raised the money in the name of Westminster Choir College,” he says.
Rider acknowledges that the uncertainty is having an effect, but said through a spokeswoman that it is taking steps to mitigate the damage.
“It would be silly of us if we didn’t understand the uncertainty of this process is making people concerned,” said Kristine Brown, Rider’s assistant vice president for marketing and communications. “But what we have said over and over again to prospective students is that no matter what, Rider is going to operate Westminster through the next year.”
She also urged donors to continue to support scholarships at Westminster, since that money is being used to help students right now. “We certainly understand people’s trepidation. However, we have also said to our donors and people who fundraise for us that we have a significant fundraising need for scholarships for our students who are here now and students who are here next year.”
The AAUP, the union that represents the faculty, is currently in arbitration with Rider to force the school to back off from its plan to sell Westminster and make Rider continue to operate it until it can find another university that would merge with Westminster. Another lawsuit, brought by several alumni and faculty members, seeks a similar outcome and is in federal court.
In the meantime, Joel Phillips, a professor of composition and music theory, says the actions of Rider president Gregory Dell’Omo are harming Westminster. “If he were trying to destroy the place, I can’t think of a better way of doing it than what he’s already done, short of setting off a bomb,” Phillips says. “He’s manufactured a crisis.”
A key point of contention between Rider and the faculty union is the financial state of the university. Last year, when Dell’Omo announced Rider was selling Westminster, he said Rider faced a potential $14 million deficit if finances did not improve. Since that time, however, the school’s finances have gotten better, and Halpern says the faculty union made $6 million in concessions and that many professors have announced retirement. Halpern points to an audited report of Rider’s finances, done in October, 2017, that shows a projected net decrease in assets from operations at $500,000, not $14 million, for that fiscal year, which did not include the concessions or retirements.
Brown disputed that $500,000 was the final number, but said Rider has had success in decreasing costs, increasing student enrollment, and generally improving its financial outlook. However, she says, it still makes sense for Rider to sell Westminster.
Brown said that the board of trustees determined that it was not in the long-term interests of Rider to continue to operate Westminster. (The two institutions merged in 1992, when a financially struggling Westminster was looking for a partner.) “There are a lot of reasons for it, but one is for us to find a partner who can invest significant amounts of money into the campus, the infrastructure, and the programs,” she said. “It is very expensive to run a music school. It’s one of the most expensive types of school to run, and Rider is not in a position to make the investments Westminster needs to grow and to make it thrive.”
The union disputes that Westminster is a net drain on Rider’s finances. Halpern says that while the school only accounts for 10 percent of Rider’s students, it brings in 50 percent of donations, and the $20 million Westminster endowment, which Rider took on during the merger, is still 40 percent of Rider’s total endowment.
The lawsuit by supporters of Westminster against Rider, in which lawyer Bruce Afran represents the plaintiffs, says Rider estimates the value of the campus at between $40 and $60 million. Brown says the $40 million figure was likely not accurate, and that the price has not been made public yet. She said Rider would use the proceeds to invest in facilities at the Lawrenceville campus and for scholarships.
“Those proceeds would help us operationally and from a scholarship and financial perspective,” she said.
Brown says that Rider only considered selling the school to a buyer who would continue to operate it as a nonprofit accredited academic institution. Exactly how Westminster could continue to operate as a nonprofit, with a for-profit owner, is unclear. One thing both the faculty union and Rider agree on is that the sale of a nonprofit educational institution to a for-profit company is unprecedented. Schools sometimes merge with each other, but they are never sold to a for-profit company. The fact that the buyer is a foreign company adds an additional layer of legal uncertainty.
“We have very, very aggressive timing for the process, as does the partner, but this is uncharted territory, so sometimes things take a little longer,” Brown said, noting that she hopes the negotiations will produce a signed contract by spring.
As negotiations continue, students, faculty, and alumni wait to learn what will become of their school.
“The uncertainty, and being left in the dark is obviously the biggest scare for us,” said Scheibe, the freshman. “If the investor has good intentions and a lot of money, it would be good, because they could put more money into the facilities and to help boost our programs. The only thing we’re concerned about is the investors. We don’t know who they are or what their goals are, but I’m optimistic that their intentions are to invest in the arts, our school, and our community.”